Chest Exercises to Help Tone and More

Last Editorial Review: 4/7/2005

Whether a man or a woman, strong, developed chest muscles are a plus

By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Michael W. Smith, MD

Sure, chest exercises help give a man a nice physique, but working out the chest can help women, too, by lifting sagging chests and breasts.

Think of anything you do that involves pushing and you've discovered what you use the chest muscles for. Whether it's pushing a lawn mower, baby carriage, or grocery cart, strong chests help us perform these tasks.

In addition, chest muscles are essential in sports like tennis, free-style swimming, and all sports where you throw a ball.

"Just because of the forward motion of daily life, the pectorals tend to get used," says Richard Cotton, an exercise physiologist in San Diego.

Things like driving or working at a computer all day keep chest muscles activated at a low level. That's good and bad, he says.

"The challenge is too much pec exercise," says Cotton. For example, someone who sits at a computer eight hours a day can really suffer negative effects from having continually engaged pectorals.

Posture Is Key

"We tend to get shorter muscles from working keyboards," he says. Shorter muscles mean a tighter chest and that usually translates to weak back muscles.

This can become a postural problem, having rounded shoulders and not being able to stand upright. It can also lead to shoulder injuries as the arms suffer a decreased range of motion.

When sitting at a desk, be conscious of posture, says Lisa Cooper, fitness director of Little Rock Athletic Club in Arkansas.

"Think about dropping your shoulders down and pulling your shoulder blades back and together; visualize holding a pencil between the blades while keeping your abdominals engaged to support the back," she says.

Cotton says working the chest is great when done in balance.

"Chest exercises need to be integrated into a whole-body workout including other major muscle groups, especially the abdominals," he says.

Cooper agrees.

"People need to think of working muscles in pairs, doing equal amounts of exercises with opposing muscle groups. If you're working chest, you should also work back. If you're working biceps, you should also work triceps."

And, she says, if you alternate between the two opposing muscle groups, you don't have to rest between sets, which can cut down your workout time.

If done correctly, many chest exercises simultaneously recruit and work other muscles groups.

"If you're pushing a car or a lawn mower," explains Cotton, "naturally the back and abs are also very activated. Having weak abs is going to hurt your back."

Chest exercises primarily use the chest but recruit supporting muscle groups to assist. In a push-up, for example, not only are the pectorals engaged but the abdominals, the latissimus dorsi in the back, the deltoids in the shoulders, and the triceps in the back of upper arms are involved.

Experts say pectorals are not usually a neglected group among those developing a workout program. Quite the contrary.

"The show muscles [such as pecs and abs] are usually something that people that are motivated to exercise are going to try to build -- men especially," says Cotton.

Many men focus solely on their upper bodies and particularly their chests, says Cooper, because they can see the progress.

But everyone should be wary of sacrificing balance in a zealous desire to have a nice chest.

"This is not a muscle group you want to overemphasize to the detriment of the opposing back muscles," Cotton says. "You should balance the two for a healthy program."

For women, chest exercises, done in balance can help to lift a sagging chest, strengthening the muscles that help lift the breast tissue, particularly in someone who's overweight, losing weight, or has just had a baby.

"Getting the chest in shape lifts the chest," says Cotton. "It may appear that you have a bigger chest (whether you're striving for that or not), but it's a healthier look. It's better posture."

Women concerned with building bulk shouldn't be, he says.

"Only 10% of women actually gain significant muscle mass doing chest exercises," says Cotton.

"You'd have to be on a pretty serious body-building regime to get that bulk," says Cooper. "And you'd have to be genetically predisposed to it."

"It would take heavy weights and low repetitions to create size," says Cooper. Women are generally doing higher repetitions with lower weights so bulk is not really an issue.

Don't Forget to Stretch

Regardless of which muscle group you're working, stretching is an important component of a comprehensive strength-training program. Be sure to complete each workout with stretches for those muscles you've taxed.

Chest stretches would include standing in a doorway, elbows bend, palms on the inside of the doorway. Lean out to open the chest while straightening and holding with your arms. Another is to stand with your arms by your sides, palms facing backward and press back and long with your arms while lifting your chest slightly.

For beginners, perform two sets of either the push-up or the dumbbell bench press followed by two sets of the incline dumbbell chest fly. Intermediate and advanced exercisers should perform three sets of push-ups and/or the dumbbell bench press followed by three sets of the incline dumbbell chest fly. Both beginners and advanced should perform eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise. Once you can do 12 repetitions with good form, increase the weight used.

Incline Push-Up (Beginner)
  • Lie face down with hands on a secure bench, chair, or desk. Place hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with feet hip-width apart and toes on floor.
  • Lower your body so that you chest is 4-8 inches from the bench.
  • Return to the starting position by extending at the elbows and pushing the body up.
Challenge: As you get stronger, try the push-up on the floor, being careful to stabilize the back by tightening the abdominals. You should look like a straight, diagonal line from the toes to the head. Note: Remember to keep the head and trunk stabilized in a neutral position by contracting the abdominal and back muscles. Never fully lock out the elbows and avoid hyperextending the low back.
Dumbbell Bench Press
  • Lie back onto a flat bench with a dumbbell in each hand.
  • Starting position: Lie onto your back and bring the dumbbells to your shoulders. Press the dumbbells up directly above your chest with palms facing forward.
  • Lower the dumbbells slowly, keeping your elbows pointed out.
  • Let your upper arm go parallel to slightly past parallel to the ground before returning to the starting position.
  • To end the exercise, place the dumbbells on onto your thighs or at sides.
Incline Dumbbell Chest Fly
  • Lie back onto an incline bench (45° or less) with a dumbbell in each hand (you may rest each dumbbell on the corresponding thigh).
  • Starting position: Lie onto your back and bring the dumbbells to your shoulders. Press the dumbbells up directly above the chest with the dumbbells almost touching and palms facing each other.
  • Keeping the elbows slightly bent, lower the dumbbells out and away from each other in an arcing motion with hands aligned with the upper chest region.
  • Let your upper arm go parallel to slightly past parallel to the ground before returning to the starting position.
  • To end the exercise, place the dumbbells on shoulders, then onto your thighs or at sides.

Published April 30, 2004.

SOURCES: Richard Cotton, exercise physiologist; spokesman, ACE; chief exercise physiologist for Lisa Cooper, BS, RD, fitness director, Little Rock Athletic Club, Arkansas.

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